Thursday 15 October 2015

Does Every Child Really Matter?

Recently we've been doing the rounds of the local secondary schools for our eldest daughter who is currently in Year 6. Open evenings and daytime tours, all very lovely and organised and intended to give an idea of what that next step up will be like for your child.

The first event and speech was quite exciting, the second slightly less so and I'll confess to have been less than enthusiastic about the sixth trip out.

It's all too easy with regards to eldest's schooling; we live in an area where there is a choice of schools rated Outstanding by Ofsted. Of course the 'choice' comes down to how far away from the front door of each one you live, but still, they're all excellent. We are also lucky that our eldest doesn't struggle with learning; like every child, she is unique and has areas that she may need help on, but it's not difficult to pinpoint those and give her the right support.

What was really giving me a heavy heart as we looked around, was the knowledge that in two years time it is not going to be so easy for our youngest girl, diagnosed with autism. There will be no choice for her; as it stands now, there are no suitable schools locally to choose from for her.

This week, I heard the great news that the National Autistic Society (NAS) has opened the first of four purpose built specialist centres within mainstream secondary schools.

I cheered, and then sighed. These are all planned for Surrey; nothing in the plans for the county where we live. The NAS centres are exactly what we need here and it's so frustrating to see it happen just out of reach. In our county, there are mainstream or MLD/SLD schools (Moderate or Severe Learning Difficulties). This week, after viewing all the mainstream schools for our eldest, I also went to view an MLD school for our youngest. It's a brilliant school, with caring staff who are fully trained in autism, and most importantly, it has wide corridors and very few children milling or barging around in them. The children there are supported very well, and there's no rush to change classroom every hour. They don't have one of those pencil fences yet, but anything seemed possible...

Sadly, it wouldn't currently be an option for our girl for two reasons.

Firstly, the level of learning is much lower. Children aren't capable of taking GCSEs (although some of them may have been when the focus was more on coursework and less on a 2-3 hour exam under pressured conditions, thanks Mr.Gove for that). Whilst I'm not sure Sasha would ever be able to sit down and complete a GCSE exam, I do know that cognitively she would be capable, which means that lessons where she had to listen to other less able students reading aloud from a book that she'd have been able to read two years previously would quite frankly bore her rigid.

Secondly, even if we did believe that that particular school could meet her needs, we'd be likely to have a battle on our hands persuading the council to allow her to attend, as so many other parents have found. It's called going to Tribunal, and it happens regularly in our county. I'm sure lawyers specialising in SEN find this county to be their dream location. Although many parents do go down this route, there must be so many more who just don't have the knowledge or the energy to fight for what their child really deserves.

This MLD school however, is not full of children. There are places free, and there is space on site which could be used to develop something new, and special, for those children who are not 'fitting in' at mainstream. Answers on a postcard as to why the opportunity is not being seized to help more children. Hang on, I'll give you the obvious answer - cost. Yes, that's right, a child like mine is very expensive for the LA to educate. That's why so many parents are forced into home-educating, which of course costs the council nothing. It's hardly my fault, or her fault, that she needs more resource though; should we be penalised for the way she was born? Doesn't that come under Disability Discrimination?

I do think that most mainstream primary schools, with the right attitude and training, could be made to work for children with ASDs (autistic spectrum disorders). They are generally small, nurturing environments, where strategies such as visual timetables and quiet spaces should be available to help any child. Of course it depends how many autistic children you try and squeeze into any one space; we have been very lucky in our girl's yeargroup that there is not a huge amount of other need (can I say we are 'lucky' that our girl has the most need? That sounds wrong somehow!).

Secondary school is a whole different ball game. Thousands of children; six or seven forms of 30 in a year, all changing classrooms in narrow corridors as a loud bell rings. All expected to know their own way about the school; all expected to conform even when they don't want to. For our girl, it's not about wanting to or not, it's about her lack of ability to conform due to her diagnosis. Sensory issues mean her anxiety levels are already extremely high and the noise and crowding at class changeover time, and lunchtime, would cause her great distress. In class, her processing speeds are much slower, which means that although she could score highly with regards to intelligence levels, she most certainly can't do that under time pressure.

Eldest girl currently attends after school clubs in the big secondary school near our house, and a couple of times lately when we've been to  collect her, youngest girl has excitedly pronounced 'this is the school I'm going to go to when I'm bigger!'. How do I tell her that this school wouldn't want her there? That there are no facilities to help children like her? She's doesn't fully understand what would be expected of her - namely that she would need to magically develop a whole new level of independence and learn how to follow rules or be punished. Which brings me back to the PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) argument. Do you not think we've tried teaching about the rules thing? Would our lives not be easier if we could parent both children the same way? Sigh.

What happened to that old Government mantra, Every Child Matters? Seems to me that in terms of education around here, it's every child apart from those that are academically able but who cannot cope with mainstream schools. We're not alone in feeling there's a lack of provision for this group of children - I've spoken to many parents locally who know their child's needs are not being met. It's about time that changed. Give every child the opportunity to develop their true potential.

A photo of both our girls reaching for the stars;
shouldn't they be given the same chance to succeed?